Taking The Physics GRE (Or Not)


The Case for the GRE

While the Physics GRE has not been shown to be particularly useful for predicting graduate school success, the fact is many schools still require it. Also, a lot of students are afraid to take it, but I don’t think this is a healthy attitude.

Studying for the Physics GRE at the very least will solidify everything you have learned and probably introduce you to some new concepts. As an advanced physics student, you know that you have to learn something multiple times before you truly get it. This gives you more practice.

Many upper-level physics classes prioritize slow, deliberate thinking. You get ample time to work on problem sets, and many exams are take-home and untimed. But you should  develop your “fast-twitch” thinking. This will help you answer questions during an interview, during the Q&A at a conference talk, and generally help you project more physics confidence.

Here is my distilled advice:

  • Take the 5 available practice tests published by ETS (link below) and study the correct answers and understand them. Other prep books might be helpful, but their practice tests are generally too hard or too easy.
  • Review strategies for multiple choice tests. You need to answer questions quickly. Eliminate incorrect answers. Use estimation, dimensional analysis, and scaling.
  • Make sure you have a solid grasp of the fundamentals and vocabulary of all of the topics covered. The Physics GRE Flashcards (link below) can help.
  • Reading your old textbooks can also help – it’s amazing what you can get out of a textbook without the pressure of the associated course. This includes your introductory (calc-based) textbook. They usually go into more depth than you might have appreciated at first, and you really should be comfortable with the fundamentals!
  • General GRE: Make sure you do well on the math section. If you are a physics major, it is likely you will do well. But take the test early enough that you can practice and retake if necessary.

Here is a more comprehensive set of links (including to 5 ETS tests and solutions) and advice:

Here is the link to Physics GRE flashcards (now a web/Android app):

One final note. Let’s assume you have everything else going for you (research experience, good recommendation letters, okay grades [note: doesn’t have to be perfect!]). If you don’t have these things going for you, try to fix those or seek advice on how to fix those. But assuming these are in place, and you earnestly prepare for the Physics GRE, your Physics GRE score will be fine, even if it doesn’t seem like it. Do not put too much stock in the actual score or percentile, as these numbers are generally highly skewed. And much like college applications, you want to apply to some “reach” schools and some “safety” schools. Make sure you are applying to an appropriate list of programs, each having several research groups you might like to join.

The Case Against the Physics GRE

So my advice is generally to take it, train for it, and not be afraid of it. That said, it’s not the best predictor of success, is considered problematic by many, and so a growing number of schools are not requiring it for graduate school admission. Whether a graduate school requires it or not might serve as an indicator for how progressive their views are.

Further, you may be thinking of studying applied physics, materials science, or another engineering field for graduate school. (I encourage you to look into these programs, most consider a physics major to be appropriate preparation, especially if you have taken classes or done research outside of pure physics.)  So maybe you don’t need to take the Physics GRE at all. Or perhaps you want to apply to 10 schools, have picked out 8 in materials science, and want to round out the list with two physics schools, but need to know which don’t require the Physics GRE.

Here is a listing of Physics GRE requirements by school:

Here is a listing of programs that may waive fees. It is always beneficial to ask programs directly (email the graduate chair and/or a faculty member you feel may be sympathetic to your case) if they are willing to waive fees. The worst that can happen is they say no.


Update (5/20/18): Some other links based on a thread from the Equity and Inclusion in Physics and Astronomy Facebook Group below!


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